December 2017, Vol. 244, No. 12


Winning Locally a Key in Battle with Environmentalists

Pipeline & Gas Journal Staff Report

John Davies, CEO and chairman of California-based Davies Public Affairs, warms to challenges, and that’s good news for a beleaguered energy industry that needs an eloquent and forceful advocate who can speak to the public.

Davies has been active throughout the U.S. as a speaker at numerous conferences over the last 30 years. Today he has taken a special interest in the cause of the energy industry, which needs every bit of help it can muster in trying to overcome often-hostile environments and secure permit approvals in a timely manner.

His efforts have included Dominion’s Cove Point LNG project where he helped build significant public support to secure Maryland and FERC approvals despite being opposed by numerous local and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs). He is assisting NRG re-permit power plants in southern California beach cities that need to be torn down and rebuilt to meet the state’s new water-use regulations. There is significant public opposition toward the proposal to rebuild the power plants.

In this interview with P&GJ he discusses the Trump administration’s effect on permitting, the environmental movement and how to make a moral case for fossil fuels.

P&GJ: How has the election of President Trump impacted permitting for oil and gas projects?

Davies: A president in support of oil and gas is a strength and it brings new opportunities. But it also brings new dangers as state and local permits get elevated to a controlling position. Can a federal agency overturn a state or local project denial?

The Trump administration has demonstrated a willingness to accelerate the permitting process at the federal level. This is clearly evidenced by both Keystone XL and Dakota Access (DAPL).

Yet, also evidenced by both Keystone XL and DAPL is that now states, regional governments and the courts may have the final say. Keystone, needing 13 state permits now faces approval by the Nebraska Public Service and continuing delays, that leave the project’s viability in question. Dakota has fared better with the president’s help to open the door for the flow of oil from North Dakota to Illinois, but the pipeline still faces jeopardy under the court-mandated re-opening of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental review.

With state and local governments becoming a determinate factor, the venue and the players have changed. I cringe when I see projects brag that they have the White House in favor, and therefore their project is now more certain. If that is good for marketing for shareholders, then do so quietly. Otherwise, you are putting a target on the back of any agency or decision-maker who has a say at the state or local level.

Another challenge at every level of government are the career agency staffers who do not share the administration’s view and will continue to do whatever they can to frustrate the process and delay it whenever possible. They believe that a delay can be as good as a denial.

Then there is the overall elevated political discourse since the election. The political environment is significantly more polarized and engaged. This is bringing about an invigorated, organized and well-funded resistance movement.

Projects that will succeed in this new paradigm must capture the public’s imagination, foster passionate advocacy and leverage support in a strategic manner to capitalize on a supportive administration by winning locally first.

P&GJ:You urge the oil and gas industry to change as the debate and venue changes. Do you see the environmental movement evolving or changing?

Davies: Look no further than the DAPL and you can see how the environmental movement is changing. The pipeline project was moving along smoothly until it gained a higher profile. The ENGOs [environmental non-governmental organizations] were striking out with efforts to stop the pipeline – losing at state and local agencies and in court – until they recruited specific Native American leaders to start the protest. With that, opposition to the DAPL took on a life of its own.

The discussion on the facts about the project and about environmental protections were lost as the question morphed into “Do you support Native Americans who’ve endured centuries of atrocities and oppression? Or don’t you?”

At that point, Dakota Access had no answer – their messaging was focused solely upon economics – leaving them unprepared for the onslaught of negative media attention and growing opposition.

The DAPL brought together every identified oppressed group as part of the same struggle. That was a new wrinkle. In the past, the environmentalists, while sympathetic toward others causes and the cross-pollinating between activists, remained distant from other groups for the most part.

This is something we are now seeing increase for issues across the country.

Knowing what we now face makes it imperative to control the narrative. You need a value-based message, a story of “why” that is beyond just jobs and taxes.

It’s essential that energy projects share a compelling value-based message of why this project, why here, and why now? While this will not deter your steadfast opponents, it will help to ensure that public sympathy for opposition arguments doesn’t gain traction or trigger a groundswell of public and political opposition.

P&GJ: You talk about value based messaging or creating a moral case for oil and gas projects – how does that work?

Davies: Every project and every community is different. While there are some universal truths about fossil fuels’ societal benefits, it’s important to uncover your own unique story and a moral case for your project and circumstances. To do that you must really listen to the community through thoughtful research.

All human activity, including the use of fossil fuels, has an impact. But by proactively identifying these impacts up front, you not only can frame how they are presented to the public, you can also garner instant credibility. Next, you must immediately contrast acting with not acting. If not your project, if not this fuel, what negative impacts are greater than the mitigated impacts you’ve already acknowledged are likely to occur?

The human brain is trained to make decisions through contrast and comparison. It’s important that we define the terms of that choice and not let our opponents. They want the public to see it as a choice between the safety of doing nothing (status quo) and the risk of doing something (change). Reframing the question, and presenting your project as the more logical and safer choice, will create a strong moral case.

By leading with an economic message, the industry plays into the opponents’ argument that energy development is all about greed and self-interest. If you get out early and communicate to the public with an impacts approach, you will start with a higher level of support and see it increase over time.

P&GJ: The internet is filled with bad and inaccurate information that is poisoning the public’s perspective and shaping negative media coverage. What can be done about that?

Davies: It’s funny that the latest buzzword coming off the last election is “fake news.” The reality is our industry has had to deal with a fake news problem for many years.

Nowadays, anyone with a computer and internet access is a reporter and publisher. There are few checks and balances of the accuracy of online content, especially when it comes to energy issues. It has become standard practice in communities where a project is proposed for opponents to dominate the agenda of debate by simply saying “just Google it.”

The internet is filled with negative fear-based messages built on inaccurate information designed for the sole purpose of generating opposition.

And fake news has reached the highest levels of popular culture with films such as Gasland that perpetuate myths and half-truths about the energy industry. While I don’t expect Hollywood to be producing pro-fracking or pipeline films anytime soon, there is still something we can all do about it. We need content. The internet is vast and hungry for content. Yet, the industry tends to speak to itself, and does not generate content designed for the general public.

I love the Pipeline & Gas Journal; you are one of my must-reads everyday. We need to get these positive stories about energy out to the general public. We need to seek opportunities to get compelling stories placed about our industry and people.

P&GJ: What is the most valuable lesson for a company seeking approvals for an energy project?

Davies: Listen first. It’s easy to come into a community with preconceived notions about what residents will find important, or what they are worried about. But every community is different. Listening to what people are saying in their own words first will help develop a thoughtful strategy and allow you to create messages that speak to a community’s hopes, dreams and aspirations, while calming fears.

P&GJ: When it comes to talking to the media, what do you recommend?

Davies: You must be realistic when speaking to the media. The media landscape has changed dramatically over the past decade.

Today’s average local reporters are in their early 20s with zero experience or knowledge about the energy industry. More importantly, many reporters share the same worldview as project opponents. You have to be thoughtful about what you say to reporters. When being interviewed, it’s important to have a clear and concise message and provide all the relevant facts.

It’s better to get questions in advance and respond via email. This provides a record of what you said and gives your communication team a chance to review the comments before they are sent to the reporter. Keep your comments and explanations simple and easy to understand, free of industry jargon or technical complexity.

You can’t rely on the media to get your side of the story out, so use every opportunity to tell your own story directly to the public. Use the project and company websites along with appropriate social media sites to communicate your key messages.

Editor’s Note: John Davies will be a featured speaker at the 14th annual Pipeline Opportunities Conference April 3 at the Omni Galleria Hotel in Houston. For more information visit

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